It is almost a reflex in the United States to go into raptures at the appearance of a Polish film, to praise it in sweeping nothingnesses like "sophisticated - subtle - profound depths of truth - sex - religion - blah blah." Yet in doing so, we unwittingly assume for Polish art too much similarity to Western art, too many common starting points.
A simple-minded observation, but one that must not be forgotten, is that Poland is a Communist country. And Joan of the Angels can be seen as a very simple political allegory.
Mother Joan, the nun possessed by eight devils, is the symbol of Poland, the Polish soul, the Polish intellectual. Her surging passion is the stuff that Poles think life is made of ("We drink hard - live hard - play hard," they will tell a foreigner). But when this passion is forced into the unnatural constraint of a nunnery, an artificially "angelic" costume, it becomes crazed and anarchic.
The priests, who seek to exorcise the demons, represent the Polish communists, at once dogmatic and anti-humanistic. In her greatest moment, Mother Joan screams at the priest that she likes her demons; that she will not be made just like thousands of others, who pray to gods all together, who eat their beans every day. This is precisely the plea of Poland, afraid that it is being engulfed by the faceless hordes of the East. Poles frequently identify the mass nature of the Russian Orthodox Church with the mass nature of Soviet communism.
Confused by his failure to "purify" Mother Joan and the rest of the passion-crazed nuns, the priest seeks the advice of an old rabbi, played by the same actor. To the Poles, Judaism is something dark and mysterious, and so in answer to the priest's wish to make everyone angels, the rabbi answers that we are all devils, that Satan created the world. The only force strong enough to change anything, capable of threatening the priests' droning ritual and the nunnery's newly-constructed wall, is the violent explosion of passion. The story begins because a former priest has been burned at the stake for having intercourse with Mother Joan. And it also ends with realized passion, with acts that epitomize life, and yet destroy it--but at least undermine the System.
Even the priest becomes infected by Joan's passion--and it turns him into a horrifying criminal. Similarly the Polish man of action, corrupted to the point of insanity by the moral sickness of communism, chops his country to pieces. Afterward he can, like the priest, only shrug and murmur "I did it for your good."
A group of commoners living near the nunnery seem at first to play no role in its affairs, only commenting on it irreverently and making merry. They answer all serious problems with a "Well, let's eat!" These commoners represent the masses of Poles, who are less tormented than the Polish intellectual, but even they are destroyed by the priests. The first scene in which they join in prayer is the last scene in which we see them alive. The camera shows them upside down, as it always shows the priest at his devotions.
It is hard to say exactly where the story ends, however. For after all the passion and insanity there are still quiet tears of sympathy. The two nuns who have fought to escape, meet at last after their suffering and understand each other.
The acting is beautiful. Director Jerzy Kawalerowicz won an award at Cannes for this--probably for its stark dramatic power. Scenes like the exorcism in church, the flaring up of Joan's devils, the meeting of priest and rabbi, and the final communion of the two nuns are breathtaking. Joan's face particularly reveals the torments of a soul, but all the characters are washed over with the abstractness of a medieval morality play.
The orthodox communist believes that a moralistic social order can actually change human nature; this is felt by the Poles to be stiflingly mechanistic. Is the devil in Joan really an angel? Are the medieval heaven of obedience and the hell of rebellion still valid? The film poses this question in its title.